Robert Hughes’s Goya Biography (Book Acquired, 9.21.2012)

Art, Books, Writers

20120925-164220.jpg

I’d been wanting to read a biography of Goya for some time now. For a few years now, his art has come occupy a strange space in the back of my subconscious mind—all the pain and violence and horror of it. Maybe it’s all the Roberto Bolaño I’ve been reading. I’m convinced that if you want to understand Bolaño it helps to have Goya as a visual referent. Also, I cut up an oversized Italian collection of color prints from Goya to hang in my office, so they’re always kinda in my visual field.

Anyway, last week I went  by my favorite local used bookstore to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature that they’d kindly ordered for me and went through the biographies as well to find something on Goya. There were at least half a dozen, but the recently deceased Robert Hughes’s was the most beautiful and most recent, and its opening captivated me: In the first chapter, Hughes describes how a near-fatal car crash in 1999 unlocked the Goya study that he’d been wanting to write for years. The scene unfolds as a bizarre prolonged fever dream, a horrifying narrative informed by Goya’s asylums and bullfights, with the strange layer of modern airport slathered on top.

I’ve read the first 150 pages since then. Hughes’s writing is crisp and the text is rich; Hughes builds a slow case, arguing against Goya’s reputation as a radical but also highlighting the artist’s powers of pathos (not to mention his skill, both raw and refined). Hughes had me hooked with the following paragraph, which could also stand in as a simple description of a decsonstructionist theory of identity:

Goya was in some ways the greatest of all delineators of madness, because he was unrivaled in his ability to locate it among the common presences of human life, to see it as a natural par t of man’s (and woman’s) condition, not as an intrusion of the divine or the demonic from above or below. Madness does not come from outside into a stable and virtuous normality. That, Goya knew in his excruciating sanity, was nonsense. There is no perfect stability of the human condition, only approximations of it, sometimes fragile because created by culture. Part of his creed, indeed the very core of his nature as an artist, was Terence’s “Nihil humanum a me alienum puto,” “I think nothing human alien to me.” This was part of Goya’s immense humanity, a range of sympathy, almost literally, “co-suffering,” rivaling that of Dickens or Tolstoy.

About these ads

5 thoughts on “Robert Hughes’s Goya Biography (Book Acquired, 9.21.2012)

  1. Glad you posted this. As has happened frequently on your blog you’re describing my own taste & book history, obliquely. I almost spit out my coffee last week when you posted a Jacek Malczewski painting. Nobody looks at Malczewski. I work in a large university art library and there is virtually nothing on him. But he’s been haunting me since seeing his work in a museum in Warsaw 5 years ago.

    Anyway, I came at the Hughes bio a couple of years ago and put it down because the case was built too slowly — will go back and give it another try. Thanks for the excellent blog.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I agree that Hughes takes a long time to “get” to Goya—there’s a lot of foregrounding about Spain’s relationship to the Enlightenment, for example. Still, I’m finding it fascinating, probably in large part because I rarely read nonfiction that isn’t literary criticism.

      Like

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s